How The Tables Turn: Workers are no longer fighting for scraps

As most will have heard, the UAW workers at John Deere (one of those corporations that opposes the Right to Repair) have gone on strike.  The CEOs thought their “unskilled labour” were replaceable, only to learn how skilled workers really are.  Muddle management (not a typo) hired scab workers and had disasters on the first day, causing injuries to workers and damage to the factory.

It’s not just the UAW, Hollywood unions and others are threatening strike action that could cripple industries.  The power of labour (unionized or not) in the US hasn’t been this strong since the 1970s, before Reagan’s war on the air traffic controller union. Workers who weren’t unionized bought into the rightwing propaganda that “unions kill jobs, you’ll benefit by businesses getting rich!”  Instead wages, benefits, job security, health care and other things gradually got worse and worse.  Workers were nickeled and dimed out of their nickels and dimes.

People talk about China’s “996 workweek” (9AM-9PM Monday to Saturday for the same wages as 9-5 M-F) as being near slavery, but that was the direction US workers have been heading for decades.  I suspect many US corporations wanted Cheetolini to steal the election last November so that 996 would become law.  Right now, Kellogg’s employees are forced to work seven day weeks up to 16 hours per day with threat of firing if they don’t.  So they’re walking out.

As many have noted, when you have no time to protest and no money saved, you can’t be politically active.  Union dues provide relief to striking workers, and both stimulus and unemployment benefits are letting people say “hell, no” to crappy jobs.

A piece by Robert Reich appeared in The Guardian this week, talking about the power or workers today, and how it’s forcing real change.  One paragraph near the end really stood out: “Corporate America wants to frame this as a ‘labor shortage.’ Wrong. What’s really going on is more accurately described as a living-wage shortage, a hazard pay shortage, a childcare shortage, a paid sick leave shortage, and a healthcare shortage.” 

Is America experiencing an unofficial general strike?

Last Friday’s jobs report from the US Department of Labor elicited a barrage of gloomy headlines. The New York Times emphasized “weak” jobs growth and fretted that “hiring challenges that have bedeviled employers all year won’t be quickly resolved,” and “rising wages could add to concerns about inflation.” For CNN, it was “another disappointment”. For Bloomberg the “September jobs report misses big for a second straight month”.

The media failed to report the big story, which is actually a very good one: American workers are now flexing their muscles for the first time in decades.

[. . .]

The media and most economists measure the economy’s success by the number of jobs it creates, while ignoring the quality of those jobs. That’s a huge oversight.

Years ago, when I was secretary of labor, I kept meeting working people all over the country who had full-time work but complained that their jobs paid too little and had few benefits, or were unsafe, or required lengthy or unpredictable hours. Many said their employers treated them badly, harassed them, and did not respect them.

Since then, these complaints have only grown louder, according to polls. For many, the pandemic was the last straw. Workers are fed up, wiped out, done-in, and run down. In the wake of so much hardship, illness and death during the past year, they’re not going to take it anymore.

[. . .]

Corporate America wants to frame this as a “labor shortage.” Wrong. What’s really going on is more accurately described as a living-wage shortage, a hazard pay shortage, a childcare shortage, a paid sick leave shortage, and a healthcare shortage.

Unless these shortages are rectified, many Americans won’t return to work anytime soon. I say it’s about time.

This isn’t just a labour shortage, and it’s not just a pandemic.  With breakdowns in the supply chain in the US and massive government spending, this is turning into a combination or storm of the last century’s events all at once – “lend/lease” via stimulus payments, the 1918 pandemic, the “New Deal”, etc.  Maybe the success of the Black Lives Matter movement is telling workers that they can fight and win, so they are finally willing to try.

Predictably, Elizabeth Warren is fully onside with workers, but Biden’s semi-supportive comments on the UAW strike were a bit surprising.  Cheetolini would have called them “lazy” and for them to either be fired or shot.


  1. JM says

    One other thing motivating some employees is the fact that during the last two years corporate senior executives have gotten big pay raises but the employees have not. The regular employees that worked under increasingly bad conditions during the pandemic did not and are not getting paid for it. A lot of the pandemic support from the government for industry got channeled into executive bonuses rather then support for the regular employees.

  2. brucegee1962 says

    Long-term, this great resignation might well be good for the country. Short-term, especially if there is a lot of inflation, it will be painful.
    That’s what worries me. If too many people start believing things were better from 2016-2020, then you-know-who may stage his comeback, and if that happens, there may not be any more long term left.

  3. garnetstar says

    I liked Reich’s piece too, and he is almost the only commentator to get it right. I would also like to point out that ca. 723,000 in the US are dead, many others disabled with long COVID or still recovering. That makes a difference.

    All the “business” articles I read about “Why? Why aren’t workers coming back?” are still blaming fear of illness, stress of the pandemic, and increased unemployment (of $300/week, which will about cover a week’s groceries for a family.) They simply cannot see or accept reality. And they whine about how tough they have it!

    I want to tell them, quit whining, it could be a lot worse. Don’t they know that this happens after every pandemic (fast-moving ones, anyway), and that, after the Black Death in Europe, so many workers didn’t come back (often because they were dead) that feudalism ended?

    We can only hope that this will end capitalism.

  4. marner says

    Some of it is not wanting to put up with the general public. A month ago, I saw this sign at a fast-food drive-thru:

    The whole world is short staffed. Please be KIND to those workers who helped you. Fast food, retail, doctors, nurses, etc. We Love you!!

    There was also a Help Wanted sign, offering $18.25 – $19.25 to start.